Few artists get to have a month like screenwriter Michael Bacall is having. He wrote the script for Project X, which is already a minor hit, as well as the screenplay for 21 Jump Street, which premieres this week. We talked to him about these two projects, his work on Edgar Wright‘s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and his working style. Check it out…
I should note that I’ve known Bacall for a while, and have watched a number of movies with him, mostly at L.A.’s New Beverly Theater. This comes up, so there’s that.
We saw this in 1999 when John McTiernan had The Thomas Crown Affair and The 13th Warrior open very close, you have Project X and 21 Jump Street coming out two weeks apart. How did that happen?
MICHAEL BACALL: It’s not something you can plan. I just throw myself at everything I do with reckless abandon and hope that it lands someone. This is a unique situation for me that it ended up that way. I wrote the Project X treatment while we were shooting Scott Pilgrim, at the same time I was working on the second draft of 21 Jump Street. And it all just happened to move forward at the same time.
Was there one you were a little more on set for?
Scott Pilgrim was the most committed – since the first thing I wrote, Manic – that I was to a production, I was there pretty much every day for nine months on that movie. For the other two I was writing a lot of stuff at the time besides subsequent drafts. I was also working on the Les Grossman script that I was adapting.
Is that going forward?
I think so, Paramount has the draft, and I’m sure there’s a lot to work out with Tom’s schedule, that’s going to be a huge factor. But I think we ended up in a good place with that. I was adapting a pitch black detective novel, and that was really fun, because there’s comedic elements to it but it’s pretty nihilistic. It was nice to go back where I started. I started writing really dark stuff before doing comedy. It was kind of liberating and kind of scary to send drafts off and say “let’s see how these ships sail.”
Did you have to mentally put on hats to separate your work?
It’s kind of helpful to work on a lot of things at the same time because you get distance from what you’re working on. I tried to keep them as distinct as possible – I tried not to cannibalize myself.
Where there any jokes that went from one to the other?
Someone just told me that there was, but I couldn’t recall it for the life of me. They didn’t wind up in both movies – I think there was a stabbing in Project X at some point.
After coming off of Scott Pilgrim, what’s it like being less involved with the production side of things?
It was really liberating. (laughs) I had a lot more time. I thoroughly enjoyed that experience with Scott Pilgrim but it was a massive commitment. I had a lot more time to write the stuff I was on assignment for, but also develop original ideas. It was a little bit scary, but also exciting and freeing, and walking in to those earlier screening was a nerve-racking experience, but everyone involved did good work.
Coming from an acting background does it make it easier – I assuming with Scott Pilgrim people were saying the lines pretty closely to how they were written – but with Project X a little less so. Do you cringe, or are you okay with it?
I had experience with this so early. The first movie I wrote, Manic, we had a very specific detailed script written for that, but we also opened up – we shot on mini-DV, and that afforded us the opportunity to do it scripted, but add some improvisation, and not be able to tell what was scripted and what was improv. So going through that process so early that was when it would have been painful. But if anything, because we had a good result with that, it’s okay to suppress your ego for the good of the project. I think it has to do with the filmmaker and the cast and for these two projects it’s appropriate.
When you’re working with someone like Edgar Wright, he has a razor sharp sensibility and concept of what he wants to do – so does Quentin Tarantino – you’re not going to show up on set and start riffing – but the actors still bring a lot of surprises, just in inflection, because they’re talented. So it’s a different experience, they’re both enjoyable. You can be surprised in some ways by the improvisational model, and that’s kind of fun.
I know you’re something of a New Beverly regular, did you look at those movies, was there anything you took from the older movies you watch?
I live near New Beverly and the Silent Movie Theater (which is run by Cinefamily) and if I’m on heavy deadline, I’ll work myself into a frenzy, and then the mind goes static at some point. I can get to either theater quickly, and that’s a really important part of my creative life because it gets me out of the house, and I can be exposed to some of the most amazing or batsh*t crazy films ever made.
The drug in 21 Jump Street I named it HFS – Holy F*cking Sh*t – and that was directly inspired by HFS Saturdays which they used to do all the time at Cinefamily, where they’d show the craziest movie they could find in a given genre and put it up on a Saturday. So yeah, I think that stuff definitely seeps in. Besides the pure entertainment value, it’s a great resource to have.
With 21 Jump Street, you wrote it, Brie Larson and Johnny Simmons are in it, was that something noted beforehand, and I’m curious Scott Pilgrim is well respected but it didn’t do very well, was there a moment there where it was scary?
I know Phil and Chirs were huge fans of Pilgrim, and I think it was a lot of their exposure to Brie and Johnny for the casting of it all. What’s weird is their animated show Clone High was massively influential on Bryan Lee O’Malley on his writing Scott Pilgrim so it all goes in this orbit. You’re dealing with a lot of talented guys who’ve been exposed to similar things so it tends to circle around each other.
I would have loved if more people saw Pilgrim, but I was never too concerned, because I was just so excited about the film itself, and the reaction the people who did see it had, and that’s a film that’s going to last a long time. I’m intensely proud and fortunate to be a part of it, so I was at the point when that came out it wasn’t even a part of my thought process because I was already working on other things.
You were on to the next three, as it were.
With Project X when was the decision made that it was a found footage project?
Day one. I believe that Todd Phillips and company knew that it was the model, and everyone had seen Cloverfield, and that thought was “why can’t we do this with a different genre and do this with a limited budget that still has a grand scale by the end of it?” They knew right away.
From a writing perspective that seems to offer a lot of headaches in terms of exposition.
Initially it did, I’d say that’s the thing we struggled with the most. We knew what we wanted the story to be, after the treatment we knew what the major sequences and gags and act structure, but f*ck if it didn’t take a minute to figure out who was shooting when.
Was there talk of multiple cameramen?
Yes, passing the camera off between the guys, I think it was a solid decision – it wasn’t mine – to have a personal cinematographer silently following them the whole time, and when he does speak it’s like “that guy’s there.”
Was the genesis of the project “big party?” Was that the word one pitch?
Yeah. Let’s create the gnarliest High School party of all time, and don’t skimp on the gnarly. That was kind of fun to go all out in that regard.
Was there something you were happy to throw in there?
I’m a big fan of the apocalypse – any apocalypse I’m a fan of – so diving into the darker part. Flamethrowers, the deluge of water, you’ve got the fire, you’ve got the flood, but Joel Silver’s not going to skimp on the flamethrower. (laughs)
One of the things that’s so brilliant about 21 Jump Street is how it shows how much the culture’s changed, was that there from the beginning, how what used to be cool is now not?
Yeah, I went to my old high school for a couple of days and cruising around and talked to kids. And I was fortunate to have great access because my mom still works there. She’s an administrator, so I got to the dean and the nurse to find out what the kids are ODing on these days, and just walking around. The human instincts are the same, just different clothes.
You’ve been Quentin Tarantino’s last couple films, are you in Django Unchained?
Yeah, I just did a day on it.
Are you a lucky totem?
I was at the New Bev when he was doing his series there. And I sat behind him, and didn’t know he was there. And I think he was writing it at the time, and he turned around and kind of explained what the role was, and said “that’s you.” And I said “F*ck yeah, dude.” (laughs)
I remember seeing a film with you at the Bev where Quentin was sitting near us and he had to take off at some point, I assume to go write Inglourious Basterds. Did you ever walk out on a film to go write?
I’ve checked out of a few movies to write before. I’ve got a notepad going at all times. I won’t write on my phone, because that’s f*cking obnoxious, but I’ve got a Moleskin in my pockets at all time. Not always because a movie is bad, a movie can be great and set me off. The thing I’m writing to direct, the whole story came to me while watching Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath at the Egyptian. And right in the first reel I went into this dream state and came out with the whole story in my pocket.
Who are your film heroes?
Originally my people were the Italian American filmmakers of the 1970’s. I am descended from gangsters, from really great family people, humanitarians, but also some hard core, cold blooded murderers and there’s just something I respond to genetically in those movies. The first two Godfather movies, Taxi Driver – which is obviously not a gangster film, but the alienation and the character. That’s the stuff that initially blew my mind.
21 Jump Street hits theaters March 16, Project X is in theaters now. Check them out.